Computers through brain signals: The strange case of Bill Kochevar

Sany Gómez

His sleeping muscles finally move. A completely different sensation takes place. He feels his fingers, his hands, his arms. It has been a long time. Eight years. Now he can dispense of someone that scratches his own nose. He can eat on his own. Bill Kochevar uses technology to hug.

Science is no more a thing of our imagination as it surprises the world again with the new way to transmit nerve impulses by sensors and cables. Challenging medical bounds, this experiment with a real human is now an important breakthrough in the scientific community.

Every intention corresponds to a tension. Our brain perceives sensations or feelings and, as a matter of effect reacts. Therefore, this organ is constantly receiving information and processing thought. Living beings, thanks to motor nerves, interact with other specimens that move and merge with their environment. Despite this, there are cases in which by defect or accidents, nerves are damaged and disable parts of the body: paraplegia.

There are many different types of paraplegia, depending on the affected part of the brain or the spinal cord, but Bill Kochevar had severe cerebral paralysis: he could not even move his neck on his own. Furthermore, there was no coming back, no solutions- until now.

The first piece of news from this innovative idea came five years ago when scientists managed to make paraplegic rats walk, run, and even jump different obstacles. They had the spinal cord completely cut in half, and with the help of a cable that connected the brain with their legs, they were able to work for 25 minutes and take over 1000 steps. Raised on its hind legs, thanks to a harness, the animal’s movements could be lead by scientists from the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne (Switzerland)- just like invisible strings with two flexible electrodes.

 

In November 2016, inventive scientists paired with the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne were able to experiment the same project with primates. Specifically, Rhesus monkeys. The interface was based on three fundamental aspects. First, a series of sensors implanted in the cerebral cortex of the primate activated the movement or the intention to move the legs. In addition, electrodes placed in the area of the injured medulla received the orders from the brain and turned them into electrical signals. These signals were for the flexion and extension of the locomotive muscles. Between those two, a wireless computer that used algorithms which perceived the signals of the brain decoded them and sent them back to the medullary neurons. This process was done in a fraction of a second.

The experiment done on Bill Kochevar is a strange case, since he is the first person ever recorded to recover (partially) the mobility of his arms and hands.

Bill Kochevar is an American citizen of 56 years that suffered from a bicycle accident while he was at his job nearly a decade ago. As a consequence of this accident, he suffered from a medullar injury that incapacitated him. A study headed by researchers from the University of case Western Reverse in Cleveland (EE.UU) and published in the magazine “The Lancet”, showed how a brain-computer interface and an experimental system of electrical stimuli (functional to activate the movement of his limbs) is capable of reconnecting the communication between the brain and the paralyzed muscles.

“Simply amazing,” Said Benjamin Walter, co-author of the investigation, “every day we take for granted that when we want to move, we can move any part of our body with precision, control and in multiple directions. However, this is not as easy for people suffering from traumatic harms in their spinal cord or other types of paralysis. The hope of this people is to regain their functionality. In this context, the restoration of the communication between the brain and the body is the will to make a movement. It offers hope to the millions of people suffering from such problems.”

All in all, the technology described in the study allows people with tetraplegia to recover part of the movement of their limbs. For this, they only have to “think” about doing it. Researchers point out that, “the advances needed for this technology combined to be used out of the laboratory are close. We are already working on developing cerebral implants. We are also improving the patrons of stimuli for it to make more precise movements.”

Edited by: Kaylynn Crawford and Naomi D’Arbell